A short history of breast cancer

November 12, 2012

A short history of breast cancer

Breast cancer is one of the oldest known and most prevalent cancers among many women and even some men.

Surprisingly the history of breast cancer is a long one. It is thought that breast cancer is one of the oldest known cancers in humans. The first description of breast cancer dates back to C1600 BC and was found in Egypt. The writer describes tumours of the breast which were cauterized and for which ‘there is no treatment’.

In the centuries following similar cases, with the same conclusion, were noted and reported by physicians.


A landmark medical breakthrough in the 17th century can also be considered a landmark in the history of breast cancer. During this century doctors reached a fuller understanding of the workings of the circulatory system and were able to establish the link between breast cancer and lymph nodes of the armpit.


Surgery began in the early 1700s with the removal of breast tissue, lymph nodes and chest muscle. The French surgeon Jean Louis Petit and the Scottish surgeon Benjamin Bell were the first to carry out these surgeries.

Mastectomies were first carried out by the natural successor to these two men – William Stewart Halstead, in 1882. The development of surgical techniques is a notable step forward in treatment as we consider the history of breast cancer.

Radical mastectomy

Halstead performed a radical mastectomy which frequently led to long term pain and even disability, the radical mastectomy was seen as a necessary evil in order to prevent the cancer recurring and remained the standard for treatment until fairly recently in the history of breast cancer – the 1970s. A radical mastectomy involves the removal of both breasts, the underlying chest muscles and associated lymph nodes.


During the 1970s it was realised that cancer is a systemic illness as well as a localised illness – this was a result of a greater understanding of metastasis – the development of secondary tumours in areas other than where the primary tumour is located.

This new understanding meant the development of less radical but equally effective treatment options.

Prominent women

Cancer can affect anyone and everyone – and the history of breast cancer shows that it is no exception to this rule and that it has been known to affect many well known and prominent women -

  • Empress Theodora, wife of Justinian

  • Anne of Austria – mother of Louis XIV

  • Mary Washington – mother of George

  • Rachel Carson – environmentalist.

First case study

The very first case study of breast cancer was carried out in Great Britain in 1926 and involved 1,000 women of the same background and lifestyle.

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